Though much of the Latin I learned in college has faded, a part of me thrills with recognition whenever a sentence features the handy abbreviation e.g. Meaning for example, e.g. stands for the Latin words exempli gratia. Because of gratia’s descendants’ gratitude and grace, my mind sometimes substitutes an even looser translation in e.g.’s place: free example. When I am typing out an idea over email, when I am trying to process what a big idea might mean for smaller ideas, I find myself digging e.g. out of my toolbox and raising it to hammer my examples into place.
They made an example out of that woman, telling her story whenever someone seemed at risk of repeating her choices.
When I name my examples, I hint at a larger world behind my worlds. I may only name two or three instances of a thousand, but those first two or three words will forever color my audience’s perception of the other nine hundred and ninety-eight or ninety-seven.
With my selections, I create the boundaries of a whole new imaginative world.
When asked to name examples of my favorite…anything, my mind always starts to sputter. The names I produce are always a product of my context and my level of exhaustion. Sometimes, the examples I find are an excuse to preen my own educational and moral feathers; sometimes I’m just tired and can’t think of anything beyond the usual. (Creativity is, after all, hard work.) But whenever I finish typing out a list of any kind, I’m wincing at the realities my commas elide.
The political scandal was a textbook example of the dangers of money and power.
In the fall of 2020, my Bible study read the book of Judges—all nineteen chapters, both the stories commonly harvested for Sunday School fodder and the uncomfortable ones usually left behind. As our Tuesday nights grew colder and darker, in our tightly wrapped coats and socially distanced camping chairs, we talked about deliverance, forgetfulness, and idolatry. We talked about names like Eglon, Gideon, Delilah, Deborah, Abimelek, and Micah. We talked about the unnamed, too, the people only specified with possessives: Jepthah’s daughter, Samson’s mother, the Levite’s concubine, the Benjaminites’ kidnapped wives.
When I read these stories as a child, even sometimes as a teenager, I remembered them as stories of faithful individuals in a time of incredible unfaithfulness. And that is, at least partially, true. But Judges is far more complicated than a book of examples and counterexamples. What if deliverance comes through someone who oppresses his own family? What if deliverance comes through someone who–until the last minute–has absolutely no interest in being a deliverer? What if deliverance only comes after we flip the page?
A good example is the best sermon.
When a sermon turns towards application, a part of me prepares to wait for an example that might actually match my life. For better and for worse, pastors think first of their own lives when pondering how Christ transforms our everyday lives. That impulse is right and good; of course I want my leaders to practice Scripture as well as preach it. But as a hearer, I often wait through example after example for one that might possibly match my life. All too often in the church, we hear examples of how Christ transforms our roles as a spouse or a parent; all too rarely, how he transforms our roles as an unpartnered person or even a friend.
I know, I know that the named examples are merely parts of a larger whole. I know, I know we the hearers must fill in our own examples. But I don’t believe that we should always be the ones translating.
We learn by example.
For those whose lives don’t match the given example, others often reply with the same well-intentioned directive: Well, then, go be your own example. But when the work of recreating examples falls to the same group or same person over and over again, those words can be both empowering and exhausting. The question starts to become harder and harder to deny: is there something wrong with me? Why do I have to learn from experience so that others can learn from my example?
Representation isn’t just a way to reflect the full experiences of humanity; it is also a way to ease the burden of anyone who has ever had to insist that their experiences could be the example, too. If we learn by example, we can also forget through example, hiking through forests but narrowing our memories to a single sycamore or evergreen.
Maybe our examples need to signify more, not less. Maybe we need the grace and the creativity to see and name the examples that come to others’ minds and not always just our own.
Photo: Samson and Delilah, Samson and Delilah, York Art Gallery
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.